George Lucas Educational Foundation

Making a Case for Comprehensive Assessment

Project-oriented evaluations that include critiques by outside experts are among the innovations at New York City's Urban Academy. Read the article.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Making a Case for Comprehensive Assessment: Urban Academy (Transcript)

Student: And in this case, what we're saying is a section of this federal wiretapping act is not constitutional.

Narrator: At Urban Academy in New York City, they don't use textbooks or standard tests to teach constitutional law.

Teacher: The law doesn't prohibit them receiving that information, right?

Student: No, but--

Narrator: Instead, they research contemporary cases and are graded on their performance as litigants and judges in mock trials like this one.

Student: -- take it back to the statute which says, if you have reason to know that this was intercepted illegally, it is illegal to broadcast or transmit it.

Narrator: Urban is itself at the center of a court case. At issue is the school's right to use its own system of assessment, instead of the state mandated standardized tests, called the Regent's exam.

Ann: There are thirty-seven schools across New York state that are part of a consortium of schools, public high schools, that use performance assessment, instead of high stakes tests, in order to organize our curriculum and in order to determine whether students are ready for graduation.

Teacher: His thesis isn't clear.

Teacher: I agree.

Teacher: It seems as though he jumps around.

Ann: It's a system of assessment, not a single instrument, and it's a system that's based on a number of components that goes on all year long, and culminates in certain kinds of tasks which we ask students to do, that demonstrate that they can actually do something, they can write research papers, they can apply mathematical concepts.

Student: Basically I was just going to discuss the current drug policy in the United States.

Ann: So it's really a good indicator, we believe, that there's real predictive validity in the way in which we approach assessment, rather than having a high stakes test, which puts everything on a single score, and which leads, we think, to formulaic writing and doesn't really invest the kids in any way in what they're learning.

Teacher: When I was reading it, I thought that you have really excellent ideas. I just thought that maybe we could do a little shifting around of certain things.

Ann: We want them to be able to take text and talk about it, be able to understand how to compare different texts, and to read whole books, not just little snippets of books. And we've set them up with an external assessor. A lot of these people have got advanced degrees in literature or they teach in a university, or they might write for a living. Someone who's agreed to spend an hour with that student, and who then sits down with that student and discusses that book for forty-five minutes or an hour.

Student: -- to see whether or not he saw what she had done.

Teacher: Right.

Ann: What we're really trying to see is, can that student take that reading and go and talk to somebody that they don't know, a perfect stranger, about the book and have a conversation about it. That's one way that we can tell whether a student is ready to go on and do college level work.

Narrator: For many, Urban represents a second chance, since most students come here after dropping out of other New York high schools. Yet ninety-seven percent of Urban graduates go on to college.

Teacher: -- a plan for critical review. I'm not going to--

Narrator: Researchers believe that the key to Urban's remarkable success is its project approach to learning.

Rachel: We're sort of really looking at ways to engage our students in, you know, very rich material that let them figure things out for themselves, not give them the pre-digested textbook account, but let them read two primary sources and tease out the complexities. A lot of it has to do with, I think, letting the kids encounter real intellectual material in all its complexity.

Student: But that's the entire job of the press, is to print what they deem--

Student: What if the press gets it wrong?

Student: Well, then you should buy your news from a different press agency. It's not the job of the government to decide what's--

Mikka: The harm is still done, whether or not people buy it from a different press agency.

I went to another high school before I came to Urban Academy, and we didn't learn anything. We went through the American Revolution for the whole term, and we just sat there and took notes and we read about it.

This is not public education. It's not of the public interest.

But when I came here and I took constitutional law, I got to argue things, I got to understand them more because I had to defend them and I had to make my case. And it really, really makes you have to think logically.

Teacher: I think the solution to your ending is actually all on stage already.

Narrator: Rather than spending class time on rote memory drills, classes like this script writing workshop foster creativity. Students even get their work performed and critiqued by Broadway actors.

Student: And then dodge, dart, I see him riding around.

Student: Well, maybe it ain't much to look at, but that car is my salvation.

Student: So?

Student: That's my ticket out of here. That's my ticket to fame and fortune.

Student: How so?

Student: I already told you ten million times.

Student: Yeah, but you ain't never gave me a real answer. Just a bunch of fairytales about you becoming a star.

Michelle: What happens in the culture of performance based work is, young people begin to see their own intellectual signatures. They see themselves as the authors of their own works. They don't see themselves filling in other people's blanks, right? That's not what they do. They know how to collaborate, they know how to use experts, and they know how to give birth to ideas, and then find the resources to develop those ideas.

Student: I mean, I like the fact that we're just paying attention to the central character--

Michelle: To introduce into that system a test, administered once, with unbelievably high stakes, that will feel like an intellectual x-ray, and will forever tattoo the mind of young people, feels like a miseducation and a kind of social sadism that backs young people into leaving schools.

Crowd: Hey, no, we ain't no fools. Take out tests out of our schools.

Narrator: In November of two thousand and one, the New York Supreme Court ordered Urban and the other alternative assessment schools to reinstate the Regent's exams as a requirement for graduation. But a coalition of students, teachers, administrators and parents are continuing to fight for the right to set their own standards of assessment.

Jane: We will not allow you to be reduced to a single test score ever.

What's happened is that the government has sold the people of this country a bill of goods that reforming education means giving a test. A test was always a measurement, a form of measurement. It wasn't a reform tool. If you want to reform education, you have to break up these huge schools, have small settings and really think about, you know, more money poured into the schools, more teacher training, and come up with novel programs. Urban is a novel program that works. Why not look at it if it works? Why destroy it and try to superimpose an old system that never worked for this population to begin with?

Ann: I think that what's happening is, that the decisions about education are being driven by the policymakers and the test makers and the politicians, and not by the teachers, the professionals.

Teacher: On the margins, he can write a sentence. What the main idea of this thing?

Teacher: That's a good idea.

Narrator: There is little doubt that Urban's system of performance assessment places greater demands on its faculty than administering a standard test, but there is equally little doubt that the lessons learned at Urban will last long after the Regent's exam answers are forgotten.

Student: I think the interests of the common citizen here outweigh the interests of the corporate media conglomerates that--

Jane: They don't know every war that's ever been fought and every river in the world, but they have depth of knowledge, and they know how to take an issue and learn about it and research and write about it and think about it and resolve it.

I know they have this kind of education in the private schools. Every public school child deserves the same.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

You are welcome to embed this video, download it for personal use, or use it in a presentation for a conference, class, workshop, or free online course, so long as a prominent credit or link back to Edutopia is included. If you'd like more detailed information about Edutopia's allowed usages, please see the Licenses section of our Terms of Use.


Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Roberta Furger


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Ken Ellis
  • John Kelleran
  • William Turnley
  • Patrick Gallo
  • Gabriel Miller


  • Susan Blake

Additional footage courtesy of

  • Urban Academy
  • © 2002
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • All rights reserved.

Editor's Note: Since this video was filmed in 2001, the Urban Academy has become a member of the New York Performance Assessment Consortium, a coalition of public schools in New York State that uses a system of performance-based assessment in lieu of high-stakes exit exams. Students must complete performance assessments (known as proficiencies) in six areas: English, social studies, science, math, creative arts, and art criticism, as well as in community service, in order to graduate.

Comments Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.